LIMASSOL, Cyprus — In recent months, the Iraqi debate has played in the news like a tennis match, with observers awarding points to U.S. President George W. Bush for his U.N. speech, then to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for his shrewd move to admit inspectors “without conditions” — subject, of course, to further negotiation.

But some experts and writers are looking beyond the volleys over arms inspections. They are instead discussing the future of Iraq after Hussein. In essence, they are taking Bush seriously when he calls for regime change. If he means what he says, a more farsighted discussion would center on these questions: What happens when the butcher of Baghdad is gone? Is the Muslim Middle East ready for its first experiment in democracy? Or is a secular dictatorship (think Syria without the support for terror) the best one can hope for?

The pessimists believe Iraq — a nation divided among Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Arabs — cannot possibly emerge from Hussein’s bloody Baathist regime as a beacon of human rights for the Middle East. The optimists believe in the universality of democracy — that people just want a say in how they are ruled, even in a place like Iraq. As such, the debate echoes arguments about Japan as World War II drew to a close and the United States prepared to occupy a nation with a history of fanatical militarism.

Writing in the November Atlantic Monthly magazine, Robert D. Kaplan cautions against approaching Iraq with a misplaced zeal to implement democracy.

“Iraq has a one-man thugocracy,” Kaplan writes, “so the removal of Saddam would threaten to disintegrate the entire ethnically riven country if we weren’t to act fast and pragmatically install people who could actually govern. Therefore we should forswear any evangelical lust to implement democracy overnight in a country with no tradition of it.

“Our goal in Iraq should be a transitional secular dictatorship that unites the merchant classes across sectarian lines and may in time, after the rebuilding of institutions and the economy, lead to a democratic alternative.”

But is it necessary to install another dictator in Iraq, and would a new thug (say, drawn from Hussein’s brutal military) necessarily lead “in time” to democracy? After years of murder and corruption, how would any dictator be able to draw the support of the merchant classes?

Americans faced similar doubts about the universality of democracy in Japan after World War II. There was little in Japanese history that led experts to believe it was ready to embrace representative government after a suicidal war of conquest. Those among the Allies who were most familiar with Japan — American and British academics and State Department officials who had spent time there and spoke the language — tended to reflect the views of Japanese prewar elites that the masses were unprepared for democracy. The experts insisted the “obedient herd” or “monstrous beehive” couldn’t be trusted with electing their own leaders, John W. Dower notes in his 1999 history “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.”

Dower writes, “With few exceptions, the ‘old Japan hands’ were second to none in belittling the capacity of the ordinary Japanese to govern themselves.”

For example, Joseph Ballantine, an influential Japanese-speaking specialist in the State Department, thought the notion of bringing forth new political leadership was ludicrous, for ordinary Japanese were simply “inert and tradition bound.”

“Had these erstwhile Asia experts had their way, the very notion of inducing a democratic revolution would have died of ridicule at an early stage,” Dower writes.

These views were countered by an unlikely alliance. First, there were “planners and policy makers of liberal and leftwing persuasions who sincerely believed that democratic values were universal in their nature and appeal,” Dowers states. They were joined by behaviorists who held the somewhat condescending view that Japanese character was malleable and could be shaped to embrace democracy.

For whatever reason, Occupation leader U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur sided with the optimists. He knew little about Japan and said his only guides in decision-making were the American presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, along with Jesus Christ.

MacArthur went to great lengths to avoid infecting his Supreme Command for the Allied Powers with the pessimism of the experts. Several thousand Americans trained in Japanese language and culture during the war were sent elsewhere, Dower writes. Those who actually made it to Japan were often shunted off to Okinawa or assigned to low-level grassroots prefectural work.

The Athenian ideal of self-rule once had an uncertain hold in the world beyond a handful of Western European nations, the United States, Canada, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. (It is amazing to recall that only a generation ago, Spain, Portugal and even Greece were ruled by dictators or military cliques.) Nowadays, people in the former Soviet bloc, Latin America and in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa elect their own leaders. South Africa has dismantled its apartheid system, Filipinos recently impeached a corrupt president, and South Korea is a stable democracy, despite the strains of a hostile neighbor to the north.

In the Middle East, however, the only democracy is the region’s only non-Muslim country — Israel. And while few would talk about a monstrous beehive these days, some take for granted that the Arab world will be locked forever under dictators or desert sheiks styling themselves as monarchs.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. In Iraq, the real question is whether America is prepared to put the same effort into democratizing a post-Hussein country as it did in Japan. America would have to commit to a long-term occupation and rebuilding of Iraq. Judging from the Bush administration’s reluctance to engage in Afghanistan, the prospects here are discouraging.

Perhaps it is hard, cold realism to insist that Iraqis cannot emerge as Jeffersonians after Hussein’s bloody decades in power. Then again, the optimists could confound the skeptics by proving that the Arab world is no more a “monstrous beehive” than Japan was. If only Bush could embrace goals of not only taking out a menace, but establishing the Muslim Middle East’s first democracy in its place.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.